The Luck of the Light

Blog entry: January 24, 2012
by Zach Schierl

Ask most photographers what the key is to getting a good photograph and 9 out of 10 will tell you "good lighting." After all, the word photography comes from the Greek words photos, meaning light, and graphos, meaning to paint or draw. Therefore, the art of photography can be thought of as "painting with light." Many people assume that this means photography is all about getting lucky and being in the right place at the right time. However, while there is always an element of luck (or whatever you prefer to call it), with a little planning and forethought, it is really not all that difficult to put yourself in a position where you are very likely to be in the right place at the right time. In other words, it is possible to predict when great lighting conditions are likely to occur so that you can have your camera at the ready.

evening light creates a golden foreground and a sky filled with dark clouds
Keeping my back to the sun, the low-angle evening light colorfully illuminates the foreground and allows the sky to be properly exposed as well, revealing dramatic details in the clouds.

NPS - Zach Schierl


One time when you can almost always count on good lighting is the hour or two preceding sunset. Often called the "Golden Hour" by photographers, taking photographs in the late afternoon when the sun is nearing the horizon is a good strategy for several reasons. First of all, you will tend to get warmer and more vibrant colors in photos taken during the Golden Hour. We've all noticed that the sun often turns a beautiful orange or red color as it nears the horizon. But why? Normally, light from the sun is composed of all the colors of the rainbow. When we put all these colors together, the sunlight appears white, which can make our photos appear drab. But at sunset, sunlight has to travel farther through all of the dust, pollution, smoke, and other debris in our lower atmosphere. These materials end up scattering most of the blue and green light coming from the sun. With the blues and greens removed, we are left with a palette of reds and oranges to give our photographs an appealing warm hue. This is why, somewhat ironically, sunsets are often most spectacular where there is a lot of particulate matter in the air, such as near highly polluted cities or following a forest fire or volcanic eruption.

Something else that photographing in late afternoon light allows you to do is use backlighting in your photos. Being backlit simply means that your light source (in this case, the sun) is behind whatever it is that you are photographing. This is accomplished by looking towards (but not directly at!) the sun while taking a shot. The result is a silhouette effect that can be very striking depending on what you are shooting.

The Memorial Shaft makes a striking silhouette against a dark, dramatic sky
The Whitman Memorial Shaft is backlit by the setting sun. Exposing for the bright sky allows us to see detail in the clouds and throws the memorial and fence into silhouette.

NPS - Zach Schierl


To get a better idea of these techniques, look at the following two pictures taken about an hour before sunset. In the first photo, I am standing with the sun to my back, utilizing the position of the sun to directly illuminate the trees and eliminate distracting shadows. If the sun had been high in the sky, the trees would be covered in shadows cast by the braches and it would be impossible to expose for both the dark shadows and the brightly lit portions of the tree at the same time. Instead, the low angle of the sun causes the shadows to be cast along the ground behind the trees, leaving my subject evenly illuminated in the warm sunset colors. In the second shot, I moved to the opposite side of the trees, so that they are backlit by the sun. Exposing for the sky allows us to see the clouds and blue sky clearly, while throwing the trees themselves into silhouette.

Two photos of the same trees. In the first the trees glow in golden light. In the second the trees form dark silhouettes.
Two trees, photographed looking in opposite directions, illustrate the advantages of photographing in the late afternoon. (Left)-The low angle of the sun eliminated the shadows that would be cast by the branches at any other time of day, while also casting a warm, orange hue over the entire scene. (Right)-The same two trees backlit by the sun results in an entirely different effect.

NPS - Zach Schierl


As you can see, the Golden Hour gives you a number of options when it comes to illuminating your photos. The ideas illustrated here also apply to the conditions you would find right after sunrise. Just keep in mind that the sun will be on the opposite side of the sky. If you want to photograph something that faces west, then it will be illuminated by the sun at sunset but will be in the shadows at sunrise. These are just a few examples that illustrate how getting good lighting in your photos is not all about luck. Just a little advance planning and preparation can go a long way. Knowing when lighting conditions are likely to be favorable is often as easy as looking up what time the sun rises or sets. Armed with this information, you can position yourself to take some great photographs!


Want to learn more about exploring Whitman Mission with your camera? Click here for more blog entries from the Photographer's Eye.

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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